A Classic First-Time Trip to New Zealand

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Exploring one of earth's purest natural paradises is both a spiritual and a financial delight

New Zealand is green. I can't say it enough. The greenness of New Zealand eases the mind and soothes the eyeballs. Honestly-is there anywhere greener? New Zealand is so pristine, so mythic, that the makers of The Lord of the Rings transformed it into Middle Earth simply by adding a hobbit here, an orc there. The nation is so magisterial that folks call it "Godzone"- as in "God's own country."

How could a spot this lovely be such a well-kept secret? Forget what you haven't heard about New Zealand. Among English-speaking countries, it's the safest, prettiest, and purest. And now that one Kiwi dollar is worth about 45¢ in U.S. money, if you stick to modest amenities, expenses can skim US$30 a day. Spotless B&Bs, run by preternaturally perky people, charge US$15 to US$20, and since meals cost around US$6, anyone can afford to dine like royalty. So even with airfare (US$900 is a good price from Los Angeles), two weeks here can run US$1,300 to US$1,500-less than explorations of many European capitals.

The principal sights of New Zealand, a temperate country found two hours by air east of Australia, stretch along 1,000 miles on two narrow islands. Most Americans, confined to two-week vacations, must limit their visits to a few areas. That's easier said than done, considering the stunning range available-from the forbidding mountains and glaciers of the South Island to the geothermal oddities and harbor towns of the more populous North Island. I've spent a goodly amount of time in this godly country, and this is what I would choose.

Auckland

The first views of this jade paradise appear out of the blue South Pacific. From North America, everyone lands on the North Island, in Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city. About 30 percent of the country's 3.8 million citizens dwell here, but it's still a lovely, livable place. Cupping the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland is speared by the sleek SkyTower (1,075 feet tall) and thousands of masts, hence the nickname "City of Sails."

New Zealand's washable plastic cash is fun to use but tough to spend-everything's so cheap. Among the attractions are the Auckland Museum (a nominal US$2), the America's Cup at the Maritime Museum (US$5), ferries to pleasant island suburbs (from US$3 round-trip at the harbor), and 45 minutes west in Piha and Karekare, blissfully wild rain forest and beaches (where The Piano was filmed). For 45¢, the Link bus loops through Auckland's best areas: the CBD (for Queen Street shopping and the fetching quay), Parnell (for galleries and bistros), Karangahape Road (or "K-Road," for budget eats), and Ponsonby (for yuppie restaurants)-but none of them are the reason you came.

No one visits New Zealand for city life. People make the journey for one of earth's last great, untouched paradises-mossy rivers, primordial fern groves, air dense with clean oxygen. The sooner you leave Auckland, the more you'll see.

Sleeping

Auckland has the country's highest costs, but that's not saying much. The best-value lodging is ideally reached on wheels (a five-minute drive/ten-minute bus ride from downtown along Highway 1) on the Great South Road, which hosts a spate of family-run motels costing around US$35 per room, including Ritz Greenlane (149 Great South Rd., 09/523-5530), Oak Tree Lodge (104 Great South Rd., 09/524-2211), and Tudor Court Motor Lodge (108 Great South Rd., 09/523-1069). If you don't have a car, the central Aspen House B&B (62 Emily Pl., 09/379-6633, aspenhouse.co.nz) has basic rooms with shared baths on a lovely city park; US$21 single room, US$30 double room. Your most Spartan option is the new Auckland International YHA (1-35 Turner St., 09/302-8200, yhaakint@yha.org.nz): one of the quieter hostels, off the main shopping street; US$9 dorm, US$24 double with shared bath, US$31 double with private bath. But my top choice is Great Ponsonby B&B (30 Ponsonby Ter., 09/376-5989, ponsonbybnb.co.nz), a colorful, homelike favorite including gourmet breakfast; US$65 double rooms with kitchenettes.

Eating

Given the blissful exchange rate, little will stress your budget. Good choices are on Ponsonby Road, Parnell Road, High Street, and K-Road. You may wish to eat with Auckland's flourishing Asian community along Queen Street at K-Road, where a row of ten busy restaurants charge US$2-US$3.50 for authentic and flavorful Korean, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. Elsewhere in town, Di Mare (5/251 Parnell Rd., 09/300- 3260) is a seafood wonder tucked in a brick courtyard; its seafood chowder (US$4) is a meal in itself; fish of the day is US$6.

The Bay of Islands

In the Bay of Islands, a maritime getaway a four-hour drive north of Auckland, you'll find one of the world's last great paradises-a lingering Shangri-La-as well as the spot where Kiwi nationhood was born. About 1,000 years ago, Polynesian warriors called the Maori paddled across the Pacific to New Zealand, poetically dubbed the virgin land "Aotearoa" (or "land of the long white cloud"), and then proceeded to kill everything in sight, chiefly the giant flightless moa. The British didn't arrive until 1769; Captain Cook pegged a few Maori with a musket before fleeing to publicize his "discovery." Later, the Brits ravaged the ecosystem by adding farming-till then, the only native mammals were bats-and with 1840's Treaty of Waitangi, signed in the Bay of Islands, they coaxed the bickering Maori chiefs into the coalition that became modern New Zealand.

These days, the Bay's 144 islands are home to scads of dolphins and ideal waterfront towns like Kerikeri, Opua, and Russell (within miles of each other off Highways 10 or 11), where a wanna-be yachtie can disappear into a sleepy cove with a glass of wine. The heart of the Bay of Islands is the Waitangi National Reserve, in Paihia, where the seminal treaty was signed. The site survives as a fragrant seaside spot containing some of the country's most historic structures (09/402-7437; free). One of them is a Maori marae (meeting house), built without nails and carved in the Polynesian style. There, visitors can receive an intimidating Maori powhiri (a fearsome traditional welcome) and storytelling show. It's one of the least-touristy samples of Maori traditions (Culture North, 09/401-9301; US$21) in a country where 14 percent of the population claims Maori lineage.

A quick US$3 ferry from Paihia (on foot) or Opua (by car) brings you to the Russell Peninsula and its 6,000-acre conservation area for the elusive kiwi, the queer, nocturnal, flightless bird that gives New Zealanders their nickname. Russell, the tiny port, is a peephole to the country's pioneer past, and the self-subsistence and isolation of early New Zealand rhymes with that of America's colonial towns like Plymouth. Pompallier, austere in its wharfside garden, was built in 1842 as a Catholic mission and was recently restored as a working Bible bookbindery (The Strand, 09/403-7861; US$2). Upstairs, the property's history is illuminated by (no kidding) displays of dried rats and the artifacts found in their nests.

Sleeping

My top choice is the Arcadia Lodge B&B (10 Florance Ave., Russell, 09/403-7756), an eccentric 1899 dowager built from the wood of old ships, with a prime view; US$50-US$100 per couple, depending on the season. Waterview Lodge B&B (14 Franklin St., Opua, 09/402-7595, waterviewlodge.com) has airy rooms, attentive owners, and private balconies; US$25-US$34 per single, US$51-US$64 per couple, depending on the season. The cheapest is Saltwater Lodge (14 Kings Rd., Paihia, 09/402- 7075, saltwaterlodge.co.nz), probably the nicest hostel in NZ; US$8 dorm, US$19 double room.

Eating

In Paihia, Marsden Road is lined with fresh seafood restaurants charging US$8-US$12 for gourmet-quality meals. The water is so clean, the shellfish is grit-free; try Only Seafood at No. 40 (09/402-6066). The road into Kerikeri is another useful avenue for dining options.

Middle North Island

On the whole, it comes across a bit like Dorothy's Oz-ideal and virtually immaculate. The first time I saw the impossibly perfect countryside a few hours south of Auckland (which doubled for homey Hobbiton in The Lord of the Rings), I was an impoverished backpacker, enchanted by how tidy and timely everything was in this country of neighborly hamlets and a squeaky-clean working class. New Zealand is admirably progressive: For a start, nuclear power is banned (even on visiting American ships), a hot issue is the safety of genetically engineered food, and the country is currently served by its second consecutive female prime minister.

No longer a backpacker, I recently roamed this compact land the best way: by car. Few stoplights, nary a straightaway-it is driving at its best. Where else can you hear, as you ramble hilly two-lane ribbons of asphalt, the sort of heartwarming Main Street radio that didn't exist even in Frank Capra's day? "There's a lost brown dog down near the post office," announced one deejay near Otorohanga. "I think I know who owns it, but can you count your dogs anyway?"

The heaving farmland of the middle North Island, sweet as it is, belies the tumult beneath the cows' hooves. Under the arching green hillocks of Waitomo, southwest of Hamilton, underground rivers thrill novice spelunkers. Outfitted with a wet suit and a headlamp, I dove into a three-hour extravaganza that had me leaping down waterfalls, bobbing above eels in an inner tube, and drifting under the neon pinpricks of Godzone's most famous insect, the glowworm (07/878-6219, blackwaterrafting.co.nz; US$32). The timid (or coiffed) can see the worms in street clothes on a crowded 45-minute version of the tour (07/878-8227, waitomocaves.co.nz; US$11). Nearby, the three- hour Ruakuri Walk, through mossy, verdant woods and yawning caves, is but one of the country's countless free walks-it instantly became one of my favorites in the world (Waitomo Information Centre and Museum, Caves Rd., 07/878-7640).

Two hours east of Waitomo, in the active volcanic area of Rotorua, subterranean doings are more sinister. When I last rolled into town, a jolly gas-station attendant informed me that some foul emission from the bowels of the planet had once again set the city park alight. I asked him if, given his vocation, he was concerned. It says a lot about the affability of the Kiwis, and their love of the land, that the idea seemed to startle him.

Unlike Yellowstone, eggy-smelling Rotorua isn't officially protected (although there are only three or four places like it in the world) but is carved into private attractions. The most colorful is, at US$7, also the cheapest: Wai-o-tapu's (17 miles south on Highway 5, 07/366-6333, geyserland.co.nz) easy path loops past burbling pools of puke-green arsenic, belching, boiling mud, and primrose sulphur aplenty. At 10:15 a.m. daily, the Lady Knox Geyser promptly erupts, induced by a dose of biodegradable detergent.

Equally endearing are the silly (and so Kiwi) "farm shows," where milking and fleecing amuse children and coachloads of Japanese tourists. Farming's a big deal in Godzone: Sheep outnumber humans by nearly 12 to 1. Rainbow Springs' five daily shows are US$8.50, including admission to its zoo-where you can finally spot a real kiwi (Fairy Springs Rd., 07/347-9301). True bird-watchers should visit predator-free Mokoia Island, a mile into Lake Rotorua (07/348-7766; US$12, including US$7 island-entry fee, on the ScatCat ferry at the lakefront).

Sleeping

Rotorua has been a family vacationland since Victorian times, so there are scads of budget motels, most made of concrete to combat Mother Nature's eternal flatulence, and almost all with ground-fed hot springs on tap in each room. Outside of Christmastime, doubles are US$25-US$30 at most motels on Fenton Street, which leads south from the lake. One is as good as another, but Heritage Motor Inn (349 Fenton St., 07/347-7686) has notable-value one-bedroom suites, sleeping up to six, with private patio and pool for around US$55. Hot Rock Backpackers (1286 Arawa St., 07/348-8636, acb.co.nz/hot-rock; US$7.75 dorm, US$11 per person double) is the funky social option, right in town, and has several mineral pools.

Eating

Fat Dog (1161 Arawa St., 07/347-7586) is a scruffy joint made for woofing huge helpings of Moroccan beef salad or blue cheese fettuccine, US$3-US$5 with greens. Triple 1 Five (1115 Tutanekai, 07/347-1115) offers meatless options like ratatouille pasta, spinach crepes with mushroom, and veggie-and-cream-cheese phyllo logs, all US$6 feeding two.

The South Island

What powerful beauty grows here! Razor-backed mountains, placid alpine lakes-what's a visitor to do? Challenge it, of course. After all, the Southern Alps, which line the western half of the South Island (where only a quarter of New Zealanders live), is where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for Everest. Queenstown, snugly hammocked between mountains and Lake Wakatipu, is the seat of extreme sports in a country world famous for guts and glory. Cheap thrills come in every variety, from rafting in summer to skiing in winter. Commercial bungee jumps were originated here (nearly a million safe jumps ago) by A.J. Hackett, whose 440-foot plunge is one of the world's highest (US$74).

Because I'm a fool, I took the nine-second free fall (easier 150-foot jumps cost US$58; 03/442-4007, ajhackett. com). On the same day, I also braved death-defying river jet boats, white-water rafts, a 'copter ride, and a mountain luge. Packages combine them (03/442-7318, combos.co.nz; from US$64 adult/US$42 child). Rushes don't come cheaper (or as safely) anywhere else in the world. Even tandem sky dives and paraglides cost half as much (about US$70-US$80) as back home, and the scenery is twice as lush. Companies vie for buzz junkies at the corner of Shotover and Camp streets; transportation is provided.

Many Kiwis think Queenstown's adrenaline fixation isn't typical of the "real" New Zealand. They may have a point, and if you try to do it all, you'll break both body and budget. Happily, with so much wilderness, you needn't spend a cent.

Kiwis love to share their land, so there will be few restrictions on your movements. Countless hikes, multiday "tramps," clear rivers for fly-fishing, and uncluttered swaths of public land mean anyone can improvise a cleansing, back-to-nature vacation with no more than a picnic lunch.

Sleeping

Queenstown Lodge (Sainsbury Rd., 03/442-7107, qlodge.co.nz) is a timber lakeview pleaser a three-minute drive from the action; US$12 bunk, US$36 hotel-style room for two to four. In town, Pinewood Lodge (48 Hamilton Rd., 03/442- 8273, pinewood.co.nz), as mismatched as someone's lake house, offers dorm beds for US$8, six-room shared bungalows at US$19 double (bed, kitchen) to US$30 double (with views, TV/VCR lounge). Resort Lodge (6 Henry St., 03/442-4970), a boutique hostel, has soundproof rooms with shared bath; US$10 dorm, US$25 private room.

Eating

Vudu Cafe (23 Beach St., 03/442-5357) serves tart chicken and cashew bowls (US$4.50) or veggies with spicy peanut sauce (US$5). Surreal (7 Rees St., 03/441- 8492), at US$7/entree, is US$5 cheaper than similar menus-try the sweet corn fritters, Persian beef with apricot sauce, and coconut pie. Thai Siam's (43 Beach St., 03/442-4815) 43 entrees cost just US$6 each, so it's packed. For those on the go, Planet 1 (Marine Parade and Church St., no phone) is a busy booth serving "Make Ya Go Like Hell" (spicy beef curry) and "This Squid's for You" (calamari and rice) for US$1.70-US$3.60.

The spectacular five-hour drive south from Queenstown, which threads past ravishing mountain lakes, took me to the southernmost point of my life, in rural Mossburn. Like all profound personal milestones, the spot was just an ordinary fork in the road.

My destination, the sublime Milford Sound, is one of the few places where you want bad weather on your vacation. Nearly 30 feet of rain a year feed thousands of cascades, and when they shoot down the near-vertical walls of the chasm, your knees will wobble. More southerly than all of Australia, more dramatic than the canyons of Manhattan-the only way to experience the unfathomable beauty of these waters (which host whales, dolphins, and sea lions) is by boat. Three-hour cruises on the Milford Wanderer, a family-friendly vessel, cost US$25, but local hotel options are slim, so splurge US$81 for a 17-hour overnight excursion, including bunk, meals, and kayaking among wild penguins, and wake up in the mists (03/442-7500, fiordlandtravel. co.nz). Companies sell one-day bus/boat tours from Queenstown from US$55, but on those, crowds foul the perfect peace.

It pains me (for space reasons) to exclude Wellington, the world's most southerly capital, with its top-flight museums and San Franciscan vibe; arty Nelson and the turquoise inlets of Abel Tasman National Park; Christchurch, with its English panache and dulcet wine lands; and Franz Josef, where you can climb glaciers in your shorts. With such low costs, though, I'll be back. The steepest expense is my limited vacation time.

There's no doubt about it. New Zealand is green. It's money-savin' green.

Going to New Zealand

Arriving

Qantas (800/227-4500) and Air New Zealand (800/262-2468) fly to Auckland from Los Angeles. Companies such as Discover Wholesale Travel (888/768-8472) regularly offer US$900 round trips during New Zealand's mild winter (May to September). The best packages offer airfare and a car so you can roam; try Newmans (800/421-3326) for ten-day deals priced around US$1,200.

Getting Around

InterCity Coachlines (09/913-6100, intercitycoach.co.nz) sells seven days of travel from US$190. Sample prices on Tranz Scenic trains (04/498-3303, tranzscenic.co.nz): US$44 Auckland-Wellington and US$20 Auckland-Rotorua. Youth-oriented Kiwi Experience (09/366-9830, kiwiexperience.com) runs shuttles ranging from US$30 (one-day Bay of Islands trip) to US$500 (the entire country over a month).Car rentals cost about US$15/day from Apex (03/379-2647, apexrentals. co.nz), small camper vans around US$28 from Britz (09/275-9090, britz.com); the major companies (Avis, Budget, etc.) tend to be expensive. Cross the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands on the four-hour Interislander ferry (04/498-3303, tranzrailtravel.co.nz; US$24 on foot, US$84/car).

Lodging

In New Zealand's summer (November to February), book ahead. The AA New Zealand Accommodation Guide lists 1,088 pages of B&Bs, farmstays, and motels (free at aaguides.co.nz). Golden Chain motels (03/358-0821, goldenchain.co.nz) are nationwide and charge around US$30/room.

Learning

General New Zealand info: 310/395-7480, purenz.com; Bay of Islands: northland.org.nz; Auckland: aucklandnz.com; Rotorua: rotoruanz.com; Queenstown: queenstown- nz.co.nz; Maori life: Keri Hulme's The Bone People and Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors. When calling New Zealand numbers from North America, precede with 011-64 and drop the first zero.

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